We created a wasteland, and called it progress.
Where were you that day?
A day or so after 9/11 I was back at work at my company’s office in Santa Monica. I was on a conference call with Bo Dietl. He’s the colorful former NYPD detective who had a part in Goodfellas (“see ya in Attica, dick!”) and then became a TV star. Now I was working on a TV show with him. He was calling in from New York.
His voice blasted on the speaker phone in a room full of L.A. TV people. “Ground Zero is on fire. It’s so bad. They’re not finding anybody in the rubble. There’s dead bodies still in there! These f—— towelheads!”
The current head of Disney’s movie studio, Sean Bailey, was there, and he looked worried, but not about Dietl’s colorful remarks. He wanted to know if 9/11 would affect the show.
Sure enough, ABC pulled the plug. Even Ben Affleck’s star power was not enough to overcome Al Qaeda. America no longer needed this silly TV show; the mood had shifted. And soon we would be gearing up to go get those “towelheads” in Afghanistan.
One of the executives called me into his office. “ABC canceled the show. We’re letting everybody go.”
He handed me a generous check—the first and only severance I ever got.
Osama bin Laden is burning in Hell’s VIP section for sure, but Osama did do one thing: he got me out of a job I hated. I’d been bored, lonely, and miserable. I assumed I’d die alone, aging out of my marriageable years, humiliated, forced to work on ever stupider TV shows and kiss the rear ends of ever more ludicrous, pompous movie stars in and out of rehab.
With my severance check, I could finally ditch L.A. and move to where most of my friends had ended up.
New York City.
“You’re moving to New York? After the attacks?” Even my mother thought I was crazy. Yes. Yes. I was. A few months later I was on a JetBlue red eye to JFK. When I got there you could still smell Ground Zero. Thousands of flyers of missing people were still posted up on the fence around the site. It was a place of total death.
What was I thinking?
So I did what people in their 20s do when they move to New York. They go out. The city was hurting, but we were going to get through it together. Life…finds a way.
And so on Valentine’s Day, less than five months after 9/11, I met my future husband at a party.
(You can read all about Mr. Keenan in my new book Domestic Extremist.)
The thing people would do in 2002 New York, and beyond, is ask each other where they were that day. It was like the second thing someone would ask you once they learned your name.
I didn’t have much of a 9/11 story. I’d slept through the whole thing, in fact. By the time some family friends who happened to be visiting New York from L.A. that day called my brother from their Manhattan hotel and woke him up in Beachwood Canyon, and he called my mom, a former New Yorker, and woke her up, and she called me and woke me up, it was right before 8 am—the second tower had just collapsed.
My dad had a little more drama that day—he was on a plane back to LA from overseas. The flight attendant woke him up and told him that they were being forced to divert. His was the last plane permitted to land in the United States, and they touched down in San Francisco.
The office told us not to go in so I fled to my mom’s house in Malibu, which I’d left the night before after doing all my laundry. The previous night, as I drove home, going south on the Pacific Coast Highway late on Monday, September 10, I remember thinking how incredibly calm the world seemed. The moonlight bounced off the ocean, the traffic was light. The smell of my mother’s Bounce dryer sheets filled my car with a pleasant perfume. The folded towels on the seat next to me were still warm from the dryer. Nothing could ever go wrong in a world like this! All was well. I didn’t have a boyfriend, but hey, otherwise everything was pretty good!
Twelve hours later I sat in her kitchen, sobbing in front of the TV.
No one could locate our friend who worked at Morgan Stanley in one of the towers.
My future husband told me his 9/11 story shortly after we met. His was slightly more intense.
He’d woken up and made coffee in his alphabet city apartment on 8th and Avenue D. The phone rang right before 9 am. It was a friend from law school who’d just stayed with him for a couple days.
“Oh hey, what’s up?”
“LOOK OUT YOUR WINDOW!”
My future husband had a perfect view of the World Trade Center, but his blinds were pulled down.
“Oh my God. Looks like it’s on fire.”
They discussed the small plane that must have flown in by accident.
My husband said, “Wow, that’s going to take a long time to fix.”
Then he saw the second plane, the building exploded, and his phone line went dead.
He spent the next few hours locating his younger brothers, who were college students in the city and lived just a few blocks from Ground Zero. One of them had been forced to flee his apartment so fast that he was still in his pajamas and was on the street with no keys, no cell phone, and no wallet. During my husband’s odyssey attempting to retrieve his brothers from below Canal Street, he had to rely on bits of information that were shouted out by people standing on corners and cab drivers. Two planes? Five planes? One hit the White House? What was happening!
On Spring Street someone shouted “RUN!” A smoke cloud ten stories high was bearing down on the crowd. They ran north. A crying black woman screamed over and over “F— the Palestinians! F— the Palestinians!”
The fog of war. It was total. At one point, he watched in horror as a hook and ladder raced north on Broadway, which is a one-way street that only goes south. It was completely wrecked, covered in dust and huge chunks of debris. A fireman sat on the tailgate, his legs dangling off. He clutched a business woman in his arms.They were both covered in blood and white dust.
But he found his brothers. They were rattled but fine.
I got a voicemail from my missing friend late that night. He’d made it out of the WTC. The message was just: “I’m alive I’m alive I’m alive.”
He died a few years ago from unrelated causes.
One of my first dates with my future husband was on Saint Patrick’s Day in March 2002. We somehow found ourselves in a pack of drunk firemen from all over the country who were in town to remember their fallen brothers.
Huge packs of them were leaving a ceremony at the Armory uptown. We were walking uptown anyway, so we followed. They were all heading into an obscure Irish pub called the Phoenix. Inside, it was like Mardi Gras, New Year’s Eve, and the biggest Irish wake you’ve ever been to in your life. Firemen were crying, laughing, hugging each other, and chatting up the babes who were happy to be fireman comfort women for the weekend.
The bar mascot was a little person dressed in an over-the-top Leprechaun costume. The little guy couldn’t get to the bar so he would crowd surf around the bar, passed along above our heads, floating effortlessly on a sea of burly fireman hands.
Imagine doing this in New York in 2023.
Every so often an engine would scream to a stop in front of the bar, the firemen in uniform would jump off, and the Leprechaun would rush out to pose for a photo with the engine crew.
We hugged and cried with the men in that bar. We listened to their stories, the guys they were there to remember. For the afternoon, everyone at that bar was an honorary FDNY member.
If 9/11 had never taken place, I would never have been at that Valentine’s Day party in the Bowery. We probably never would have met, and both been single. I wish for all the victims that it had never happened, that we had stopped the attacks earlier, that they had all lived.
But things went the way they did, and it is a slightly uncomfortable truth to say that I owe my children’s lives to 9/11. I’m probably not the only one whose life went in a wildly different direction as a direct result of a terrorist attack.
Ground Zero was where my path started to take its current turn, for better or for worse.
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